LAW KHEE LAH, Karen State — A conference of most of Burma’s ethnic armed groups began Monday in Karen National Union (KNU)-controlled territory near the Burmese-Thai border, with an ethnic Karen leader affirming his support for ongoing talks with the government toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement.
The conference at the KNU’s Law Khee Lah base, which is taking place ahead of more talks with government negotiators in the Karen State capital of Hpa-an next month, is being attended by the majority of groups, with the exceptions of the main Wa rebel group and its allied Mong La militia group.
KNU chairman Saw Mutu Say Poe emphasized the importance of consolidating existing ceasefires signed individually between rebel groups and the government.
“We will build trust by continuing negotiations. I want to emphasize the consequences that will come out after a nationwide ceasefire agreement. There will be positive results such as a guarantee for political dialogue and we will consolidate the ceasefires which were reached by individual groups,” he said.
Mutu Say Poe said all ethnic rebel groups would have to move from armed struggle to the negotiating table to bring the decades-long conflicts with the Burma government to an end. He also said that he was told by Burmese President Thein Sein that political negotiations are the only way to solve the conflicts.
“We met both Burmese army chief [Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing] and President [Thein Sein]. The president told us that there is no option except negotiations to solve the problem,” said Mutu Say Poe.
The KNU leader, however, insisted that while armed groups should move forward toward peace and reconciliation, they should uphold the principle of the Karen resistance’s founder, Saw Ba U Gyi, who once said: “We shall decide our own political destiny.”
Mutu Say Poe said that while Burmese governments in the past had encouraged ethnic rebels to get along with the government and “exchange arms with peace,” he believes that President Thein Sein’s government is sincere, since it is willing to discuss a federal system that would give ethnic minorities more autonomy.
“I want to urge that we will have to grab the opportunity, and it’s time to move forward and speedily implement significant changes for the sake of civilians. It is important that ethnic groups have to push for those positive emerging reforms,” said Mutu Say Poe.
As well as the KNU, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the Chin National Front (CNF), the Wa National Organization (WNO), the Shan State Progressive Party (SSPP), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA)—also known as the Kokang militia—the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO), the Arakan Liberation Party (ALP), the KNU/KNLA Peace Council, Arakan Army (AA) and other smaller ethnic armed groups attended the conference, which is set to end on Wednesday this week.
Representatives from the alliance of ethnic armed groups, United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) and the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) also attended the meeting.
Representatives of ethnic armed groups held the their first conference about the current ceasefire talks at the KIO’s headquarters in Laiza, on Sino-Burmese border, in late October to early November last year. At that time, all ethnic groups except United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Mong La militia, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), did not attend.
That conference was followed by a meeting with the government’s negotiators, led by Minister Aung Min, in the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina, where talks led to an agreement to talk further, but the rebels and the government appeared to still be separated by some distance in their demands.
The next round of negotiations was originally slated for December but has been delayed twice by the ethnic armed groups asking for more time to agree upon their demands.